By Sam Baker - 03/21/13 09:00 AM EDT
Three years after President Obama signed his landmark healthcare law, Democrats are confident they’ve finally played the politically divisive issue to a draw.
Thursday marks the third anniversary of the final House vote to pass the Affordable Care Act, and Obama signed the bill into law three years ago Saturday.
While the debate over the law’s merits still rages in Washington, there are also strong signs that beating up on ObamaCare simply isn’t the potent political weapon it once was.
Healthcare played a dominant role in Democrats’ deep losses in 2010. But party strategists say they aren’t especially worried about fending off attacks on the issue in 2014.
“It’s not really a thing we’re thinking about,” one national Democratic strategist said.
The healthcare law will surely be a major line of attack against Democrats in states Obama lost in 2012 — notably Sens. Kay Hagan (N.C.), Mark Begich (Alaska) and Mark Pryor (Ark.). The law’s principal author, Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.), is also up for reelection next year.
Nevertheless, the Democratic strategist said he isn’t spending much time preparing candidates for attacks over the Affordable Care Act. Democratic victories in 2012 show the criticism has lost steam, he said.
Sen. Jon Tester won reelection last year in heavily Republican Montana against Rep. Denny Rehberg, one of the law’s most vocal critics. Joe Donnelly won a Senate seat in Indiana despite voting for the act while he was in the House. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp wasn’t in Congress to vote on healthcare, but she pulled off a win in conservative North Dakota without disavowing the law.
Republicans also hammered Obama over the law’s Medicare cuts, only to see him reelected and the law’s survival ensured.
“It’s hard to imagine, if it didn’t make a difference in 2012, how it will make a difference in 2014,” said Chris Jennings, a Democratic healthcare consultant and a veteran of the Clinton White House.
Democrats have clearly gotten more confident about the healthcare law since their massive 2010 losses. They’ve warmed up to the ObamaCare label, which the Obama campaign fully embraced last year in an effort to chip away at the term’s derogatory origins.
Democrats are also criticizing the implementation effort more openly, now that the law’s basic survival isn’t in question.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
To be sure, public opinion of the healthcare overhaul remains divided. In a Kaiser Family Foundation poll released Wednesday, 37 percent of voters said they have a favorable view of the law, compared with 40 percent who view it unfavorably.
But Republicans are increasingly on the political defensive as they push to repeal or defund a law that keeps surviving big, legitimizing tests.
“If you keep on running against something that isn’t changing, people say, ‘Well, that isn’t changing, and I have other things I want you to focus on,’” Jennings said.
Support for repealing the law plummeted to 33 percent following Obama’a reelection, according to Kaiser polling. After the Supreme Court upheld the law, 54 percent said they were “tired of hearing lawmakers debate the health care law and would like them to move on to other issues.”
Schisms within the GOP over healthcare also seem to be helping Democrats. Many conservative activists are demanding more repeal votes, while some Republican governors are accepting defeat and turning their attention toward implementation.
Some of the party’s brightest 2016 prospects — including Gov. Chris Christie (N.J.) and Gov. John Kasich (Ohio) — have signed onto the law’s Medicaid expansion. So have some of the party’s conservative standard-bearers, including Gov. Jan Brewer (Ariz.) and Gov. Rick Scott (Fla.).
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, another likely 2016 contender, is working with the federal government to build his state’s insurance exchange, though he won’t accept the label of a “partnership” exchange.
“I’d prefer they didn’t do it. I’d prefer they stand up and fight,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said of Republican governors signing on to the Medicaid expansion.
He added, though, that he understands the temptation of free federal money to cover millions of residents. Each governor has to do what’s best for his or her state, Hatch said.
Republicans are as adamant as ever that the law will lead to higher insurance premiums, an erosion of employer-based coverage and cuts to Medicare benefits. And those disruptions might be their best chance to put healthcare back in the forefront in time for 2014.
Several politically unpopular provisions take effect Jan. 1, including the individual and employer mandates, as well as new taxes and regulations that insurers say will produce a massive “rate shock” for young customers.
A bad initial experience with a fully implemented healthcare law could easily turn the issue back into a general-election threat, especially because polls show Republicans have done a far better job than Democrats at defining the law in the public’s mind.
By the same token, Jennings noted, many of the law’s richest benefits also kick in Jan. 1. People will begin receiving subsidies to help buy insurance, Medicaid will expand and people with pre-existing conditions will have guaranteed access to coverage.
Once those policies kick in, he argued, Republicans will have to campaign more explicitly on a platform of taking away benefits that already exist — one of the hardest sales pitches in politics.